Suspended Sentences

Written by Lisa R. Brown for Journal of West Indian Literature on

Readers familiar with Mark McWatt’s poetry are hardly surprised at the tenor of his debut into the world of prose. The collection of eleven short stories, prefaced by a three-part introduction and culminating with a chapter updating readers on the lives of the storytellers, is written with the keen and self-conscious eye of the pilgrim poet we have come to know in Interiors (1989) and The Language of El Dorado (1994).
Both volumes of poetry interrogate the multi-faceted nature of Guyanese identity by plumbing personal and national memory for signifiers of belonging and reconciliation.

Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement is a compilation of the stories by a ‘gang’ of school leavers who vandalize the Sports club at the Imperial Bank after A-Level exams and Guyana’s Independence in 1969. After a mock ‘trial’ each member is ordered to write a short story about the meaning of the country’s new status by way of punishment. But this is not all. The collection of the stories is halted when Victor Nunes the head boy and appointed editor goes missing on a journey up the Pomeroon River. Victor’s disappearance provides the perfect opportunity for McWatt to reveal his own involvement in the vandalism, his doubts of the legitimacy of the ‘sentences’ and 
his reluctance in assuming the burden of editorial duties. 

The ‘gang members,’ seven boys and two girls, write their stories in the twenty-odd years it takes McWatt to re-establish contact, remind them of their ‘sentences’ and request revisions. In this time, most have found success in their chosen fields, weathered personal and life changing difficulties and, most important of all, left Guyana. The text pivots on the fusing of multiple binaries established early in McWatt’s double role as a convicted perpetrator of crimes against Guyanese nationhood and the reluctant but effective enforcer of justice in the matter of these crimes. The double is central to the stories’ many connections between past and present, the profane and the sacred, the guilty and innocent, the marginal and the central, among others. The ‘suspended sentences’ are served not only to expiate the guilt of the twin offences, vandalism and national abandonment, committed that night, but to belatedly celebrate Guyanese nationhood and support the creation of new and relevant epistemologies which reconcile diverse perspectives.

All the characters in the stories travel. Their journeys are both physical and psychological, by various modes, air, land, water, memory, and are marked by new discoveries of both country and self. The discoveries are always shocking and transforming because the travelers encounter questionable, liminal and grotesque entities that challenge and revise their belief systems. In ‘Alma Fordyce and the Bakoo’ two novice entrepreneurs transform fascination into profit by displaying a bakoo in a jar at their new bar and restaurant. The idea of displaying the bakoo is disquieting to the younger, more ‘modern’ and ambitious brother who doubts all the stories told about the popular yet feared figure of Guyanese folklore. The older, more ‘traditional’ brother prevails and buys the bakoo from a mysterious loner from the interior. The bakoo attracts everyone: scientists, journalists and neophytes alike. The story is a hilarious and disturbing account of life in the multi-faceted, multi-ethnic and polyphonic Georgetown of the 1960s. The community is united by the shock of Alma’s sexual liberation when both Alma, the epitome of decorum and middle-class values, and the bakoo, whom she believes to be her lost brother, ride off together in the throes of incestuous gratification into the ‘foreday sky.’ This story is the gem in the collection not only because it is so amusing but because it manages to posit desire with all its transgressive and scandalous facets as a necessary and vibrant aspect of human existence.

‘Two boys named Basil’ reads very much like Poe alive and well and reworking ‘William Wilson’ at a computer in 2005. The story explores the ironic impact of wish-fulfillment come true. Two boys who share the same Christian name compete relentlessly for grades and fame at school. The competition becomes so restrictive and burdensome that one wishes the other dead. Wish-fulfillment is realized on a school trip to Baracarra falls when Basil Ratgaaver disappears during the boys’ final competition: a race to the top of the falls. The survivor, Basil Ross, denies the more contentious aspects of himself for a peaceful and acceptable life. He surrenders all: love, energy and desire. Fortunately, he is liberated many years later when he spots his double’s face ‘behind a veil of water’ in a tourist brochure. His vision confirms that all is really not lost and he is free to live and dance as he once did in his youth. Written by one of the two girls in the gang, the story underscores the problems of self-acceptance and identity. Acceptance and belonging are often achieved at the expense of extreme self-sacrifice which isolates the individual and renders the community devoid of meaningful agents of development. 

There is no shortage of tests and outcomes, trials and verdicts in this collection. Those who travel through Guyana as well as foreign lands are bound to discover useful paradigms which invariably reconnect them to their homeland. The eleven guilty storytellers are able to bridge the gap created by their abandonment of Guyana through the art of their storytelling. What began as the dubious and burdensome fulfillment of an obligation for a twenty year old transgression is transformed for both storytellers and editor into a powerful testimony of Guyanese heritage and potential fulfilled. 

The text validates the talents of its young and promising felons and accepts the currencies in which their debts are paid. The storytellers are artists whose lives have not been made any easier by their departure from their homeland. In ‘Still Life: Bougainvilla and Body Parts’ a concerned father communicates the daily activities of his daughter’s Toronto household in letters to his wife. The daughter is equally occupied with an important art examination and the necessary shedding of her impervious bear-like lover. ‘Still Life’ makes bold the narrative purpose of the collection: to assess the extent to which artistic expressions can negotiate and bridge the divide created by racial, cultural, geographic and personal differences. The daughter’s successful painting is a startling fusion of her personal pain and the natural flora of the Caribbean; the father’s letters a triumph over past prejudices and a testimony of his love for wife in Guyana. An anxious and tenuous link is made between the students whose act of vandalism initiated the narrative and the second-generation art student in Canada who must look homeward for inspiration and make the best decision for her survival. The trope of distant artists connected to the Guyanese aesthetic is also evident in the penultimate story, ‘The Tyranny of Influence.’ The paintings of 15th century Sicilian experimental artist Antonello Da Messina, vilified for his application of new forms to archetypes such as the ‘ St Sebastian’ and ‘St Jerome’ in his homeland, appear in full colour to give life to the story of an artist who has fallen into his blank canvas.

Make no mistake though, Suspended Sentences is not an interrogation of the failures of Guyanese independence, nor is it a commentary on the nature of social injustice in a country torn by ethnic strife and stagnating economic polices. Instead, McWatt steps confidently into the tradition of Guyanese novelists (Harris, Dabydeen [both Cyril and David], Heath) who use the journey motif and the trope of the double to dredge from the vast Guyanese landscape fragments of myth, loss and belonging not simply to elide political realities, but to recreate a homeland that embraces all: those who leave and those who remain; those who violate the nation’s rules and those who conform. To be Guyanese is not only to live there but to never forget the fecundity of the place: its traditions, its terrain, its multi-cultural people, its conflicts and its potential for greatness in the region. 

The triumph of this collection, which has won both the Commonwealth First Book Award (Caribbean) and the overall Best First Book Award 2006, as well as the Casa de las Americas Prize, is its accessibility and its sheer bravado in allowing the guilty to finally speak about that which they may no longer be entitled to speak while penetrating
ostensibly impermeable boundaries of national and personal belonging. McWatt accepts his guilt and transforms that powerless position into a formidable platform from which all major offences: teenage rebellion, personal loss, and national abandonment can be legitimately defended. 

One considerable limitation of the collection is the writer’s loss of control of the plural voices in his stories. The voices of the half-Amerindian Dominic Calistro, the ‘porcupine-haired’ Chinese Terence Wong, and the black (?) Hal Seaforth all merge indistinctively with the voice of the persistent, introspective tone of the reluctant editor. But this was to be expected. All possible flaws of narrative technique have been ‘legally’ expiated by the 
caveat of the preface, the three-part introduction and the final update on the lives of the storytellers. But even this multi-layered proviso cannot bear the enormous burden of integrating multiple voices, layered narratives, mysterious disappearances, doppelgangers and experimental artists with themes of acceptance, reconciliation and freedom. The collection sags under the ideological weight of the ‘justice’ that the ‘sentences’ must adequately serve. Artistic expressions will not provide tenable remedies to the failures of political policies that seem to waste indigenous, human and monetary resources, thus perpetuating cycles of disappointment. What remains is the very real matter of living with dignity, agency and national pride without fear of recrimination: a human need which joins humanity beyond geographic and cultural boundaries. The politics of voice is only a thin mask for one man’s journey to find solidarity in different voices for different emotions: finding the legitimacy to feel, to respond, to live. The critics will love this book and its preoccupations with layers of Bakhtinian ‘carnivaleque’ tapestries; readers will love it for its many imaginative jaunts into new and inspiring outposts. 

The text is haunting, magical and profane. It validates the irresistible lure of the transgressive imagination. McWatt restores our faith in the power that lies in both writer and reader to reclaim old territories and establish connections between previously disparate entities; the power to speak from liminal positions and own both defeat and triumph.